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Cerebral Palsy


Cerebral palsy means brain paralysis. It is a disability that affects movement and body position. It comes from brain damage that happened before the baby was born, at birth, or as a baby. The whole brain is not damaged, only parts of it, mainly parts that control movements. Once damaged, the parts of the brain do not recover, nor do they get worse. However, the movements, body positions, and related problems can be improved or made worse depending on how we treat the child and how damaged his or her brain happens to be. The earlier we start, the more improvement can be made.

In many countries cerebral palsy is the most frequent cause of physical disability. About 1 of every 300 babies is born with or develops cerebral palsy.

How to recognize cerebral palsy


At birth a baby with cerebral palsy is often limp and floppy, or may even seem normal.

Baby may or may not breathe right away at birth, and may turn blue and floppy. Delayed breathing is a common cause of brain damage.

Slow development Compared to other children in the village, the child is slow to hold up his head, to sit, or to move around.

He may not use his hands. Or he only uses one hand and does not begin to use both.

Feeding problems The baby may have difficulties with sucking, swallowing and chewing. She may choke or gag often. Even as the child gets bigger, these and other feeding problems may continue.

Difficulties in taking care of the baby or young child. Her body may stiffen when she is carried, dressed, or washed, or during play. Later she may not learn to feed or dress herself, to wash, use the toilet, or to play with others. This may be due to sudden stiffening of the body, or to being so floppy she falls all over the place.

The baby may be so limp that her head seems as if it will fall off. Or she may suddenly stiffen like a board, so that no one feels able to carry or hug her.

The baby may cry a lot and seem very fussy or irritable. Or she may be very quiet (passive) and almost never cry or smile.


Child hangs in upside down U with little or no movement.

Body stiffens like a board.

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Communication difficulties The baby may not respond or react as other babies do. This may partly be due to floppiness. stiffness, or lack of arm gestures, or control of face muscles. Also, the child may be slow in beginning to speak. Later some children develop unclear speech or other speaking difficulties.

Although parents find it hard to know exactly what the child wants, they gradually find ways of understanding many of his needs. At first the child cries a lot to show what he wants. Later he may point with his arm, foot or eyes.

Intelligence Some children may seem dull because they are so limp and slow moving. Others move so much and awkwardly they may appear stupid. Their faces twist, or they may drool because of weak face muscles or difficulty swallowing. This can make an intelligent child appear mentally slow.

About half of the children with cerebral palsy are mentally slow, but this should not be decided too soon. The child needs to be given help and training to show what she is really like. parents can often tell that she understands more than she can show.

Hearing and sight are sometimes affected. If this problem is not recognized, the family may think that the child lacks intelligence. Observe the child carefully and test him to find out how well he can hear and see. (See p. 450 to 453.)

Seizures (epilepsy, fits, convulsions) occur in some children with cerebral palsy. (See Chapter 29.)

Restless behavior Sudden changes of mood from laughing to crying, fears, fits of anger, and other difficult behavior may be present. This may partly be due to the childs frustration of not being able to do what he wants with his body. If there is too much noise and activity the child can become frightened or upset. The brain damage may also affect behavior. These children need a lot of help and patience to overcome their fears and other unusual behavior. (See Chapter 40.)

Sense of touch, pain, heat, cold, and body position are not lost. However, the children may have trouble controlling movements of their bodies and trouble with balance. Because of their damaged brains they may have difficulty learning these things. patient teaching with lots of repetition can help.

Abnormal reflexes Babies have certain early reflexes or automatic body movements that normally go away in the first weeks or months of life. In children with brain damage, they may last much longer. However, these are only important if they affect how the child moves. Knee jerk and other tendon-jump reflexes are usually over-active (jump higher than normal). If you are not sure, testing for abnormal reflexes may help you tell cerebral palsy from polio. (See p. 40.)

Even if a child can hear loud banging, he may not hear well enough to understand words.

With help and training, some children who have been considered mentally slow prove to be quite intelligent.




Cerebral palsy is different in every child. Different experts have worked out different ways of describing it. But do not worry about labeling a childs particular type of cerebral palsy. This does not usually help his treatment.

It is helpful, however, to recognize 3 main ways that cerebral palsy can appear. In a particular child, it may appear in one or another of these waysbut usually in some sort of combination.


The child who is spastic has muscle stiffness, or muscle tension. This causes part of his body to be rigid, or stiff. Movements are slow and awkward. Often the position of the head triggers abnormal positions of the whole body. The stiffness increases when the child is upset or excited, or when his body is in certain positions. The pattern of stiffness varies greatly from child to child.


These are slow, wriggly, or sudden quick movements of the childs feet, arms, hands, or face muscles. The arms and legs may seem jumpy and move nervously, or just a hand or the toes may move for no reason. When he moves by choice, body parts move too fast and too far. Spastic movements or positions like those shown above may continually come and go (constantly changing muscle tension). His balance is poor and he falls over easily.

Most children with athetosis have normal intelligence, but if the muscles needed for speech are affected, it may be hard for them to communicate their thoughts and needs.

Stiffness, with the knees bent or with legs separated, occurs more commonly in the child with spasticity and athetosis combined (see below).

Head twists to one side.This arm may

stiffen straight out.

Legs stiffen and knees press together.

This arm stiffens bent.

Fist grips thumb.

Shoulders and head press back.

Legs turn in.

Less commonly the head and shoulders may stiffen forward . . .

. . . or the arms may stiffen straight across the body, with the head pressed back.

When you try to stand the child the legs often stiffen or cross like scissors.

The child who learns to walk may do so in a stiff, awkward position, with the knees pulled together and bent. Feet often turn in.

Typical athetoid arm and hand movements may be as a regular shake or as sudden spasms. Uncontrolled movements are often worse when the child is excited or tries to do something.

poor balance

arm and hand movement

This child has severe athetosis.



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The child who has ataxia, or poor balance, has difficulty beginning to sit and stand. She falls often, and has very clumsy use of her hands. All this is normal in small children, but in the child with ataxia it is a bigger problem and lasts longer (sometimes for life).

Because children who have mainly a balance problem often appear more clumsy than disabled, other children are sometimes cruel and make fun of them.

Many children who have spasticity or athetosis also have problems with balance. This may be a major obstacle in learning to walk. However, much can often be done to help a child improve her balance.

Although most cerebral palsy children fit one or another of these patterns, check also for minor problems in other parts of the body.

To keep her balance the child with ataxia walks bent forward with feet wide apart. She takes irregular steps, like a sailor on a rough sea or someone who is drunk.

Parts of the body affected




with slightinvolvement elsewhere




arm bent; hand spastic or floppy, often of little use

this side completely or almost normal

She walks on tiptoe or outside of foot on affected side.

upper body usually normal or with very minor signs

Child may develop contractures of ankles and feet.

When he walks, his arms, head, and even his mouth may twist strangely.

Children with all 4 limbs affected often have such severe brain damage that they never are able to walk.

The knees press together.

legs and feet turned inward


Hold a finger or a


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